The global banking giant Goldman Sachs’s report on South Africa, released early November, was titled, “Two Decades of Freedom”. The report, which painted a generally positive picture of the progress of post-Apartheid South Africa, was met with harsh criticism. Several South African analysts and journalists argued that the socio-economic challenges of the country are still too serious to applaud the positive story reflected in the Sachs report.
The Sachs report follows a general trend of positive portrayal of developments in Africa. Many other institutions and analysts have shifted away from a narrative that depicts Africa as a desperate, poverty-riddled continent and have embraced the Africa rising story.
Africa is rising?
The narrative gained prominence over the last five years as a result of the sustained growth registered by the continent. At this pace, it is estimated that seven out of the ten fastest growing economies by 2015, will be in Africa. For 2013, the Africa Economic Outlook foresees an average growth for the whole continent of 4.8 percent. Some socio-economic indicators, although still significantly under par, are also improving. The African Development Bank estimates that poverty levels in Africa have declined from an average of 47 percent in 1990, to 40 percent in 2008, with some countries registering more progress than others. A recent report released by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation notes that 85.7 percent of Africans live in a country with greater economic opportunities, and an astonishing 94 percent live in countries which have shown overall governance improvements since 2000.
A retired Ghanaian ambassador once asked me, “Do you think the average African believes that Africa is growing?” She was reacting to a point I made regarding the need for Western donors to revisit their approach towards Africa if they are to remain relevant in a fast-changing Africa. The figures above are impressive but, indeed, does the average African citizen believe that Africa is rising? Or is it only a popular narrative among international partners and institutions?
[T]he bottom line is that development is a national project that needs to capture the citizens’ imagination and secure their engagement.
When we speak of a complex issue such as development, figures are not enough to convince. Ultimately it is about how change reflects on the daily lives of a citizen. A recent survey by the Afrobarometer sheds some light on African citizens’ perception on economic growth and helps explain South Africans’ reaction to the Sachs report.
The survey which covered 34 African countries notes that 53 percent of the population considers the current state of the national economy to be “fair” or “very bad”. Only 29 percent consider that positive improvements have been made, notably in Namibia, Zambia and Algeria. This is consistent with the perception that living conditions have not particularly improved. Of those surveyed 33 percent consider that their living conditions have worsened, while 34 percent indicate that no improvements have been made to their lives despite growth.
Some African governments are praised by the international community for their management of the economy. That perception, however, is not shared by the population, since 56 percent of Africans surveyed say their governments were not doing a good job in managing their countries’ economies. There is a particularly negative perception regarding the governments’ ability to create jobs or to narrow the income gap.
African constituencies first
Addressing the discrepancy between domestic and international perceptions on African development is critical. These survey results and the reactions to the Goldman Sachs report in South Africa should be a wake up call to many African governments. It, indeed, goes without saying that ensuring that citizens buy into the development vision and become active contributors to it, is critical for the long-term sustainability of current progress.
It is understandable that African governments look for reassurances from the international community. They need international credibility in order to secure some resources. A positive report from influential banks such as Goldman Sachs is key for investors’ confidence.
However, the bottom line is that development is a national project that needs to capture the citizens’ imagination and secure their engagement. Although estimates show that, even with current growth rates, a quarter of Africans will still live below the poverty line by 2030. Still, there is opportunity to work on improving equality. It has indeed been shown that equal societies tend to be more effective at fighting poverty than unequal ones. And that is what should be on the agenda of African leaders: Maximizing the impact of economic growth to fight inequality, and slowly supporting the emergence of an active citizenry that can give a stronger push to development efforts.
Faten Aggad-Clerx is an Africa analyst covering African development issues. She is currently the Programme Manager for Africa at the European Centre for Development Policy Management. She writes in her personal capacity.